Searching for Brave and Humble Leaders
Eduard Khegay new Methodist bishop in Russia
M o s c o w – On January 1 Eduard Grigorevich Khegay of Moscow became the new bishop for the Euroasian Episcopal Area within the Northern European and Euroasian Central Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC). He succeeded Bishop Hans Växby, for whom he had served as an assistant since 2005. Växby, a Swede from Finland, has now retired and returned to his homeland.
Bishop Dr. Khegay reported in a recent interview that he spends time dreaming about brave and humble leaders. Quoting John Wesley he stated: “My dream is to raise up 100 brave and humble pastors and leaders ‘who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God’.”
These new leaders may be of either gender. The fact that half of its pastors are women makes Russia’s “United Methodist Church” highly unique in a setting in which an all-male clergy is regarded as a primary trademark of Russian Christendom. Methodists along with some Lutheran and Charismatic denominations are virtually the only ones in the country having female clergy. Khegay insists: “It’s hard for me to tell the difference between male and female leadership. I have always lived in settings in which both women and men were in leadership, even during Soviet times. I feel comfortable with both. More important is the issue of character and skills.”
But not just any leader will do for the UMC in Russia and Central Asia. Dr. Khegay is its first Russian bishop who is also a citizen of Russia and he adds: “We place emphasis on raising up indigenous leaders. We are a global church that still understands the importance of the local context.” Theological education remains a primary objective. The Bishop notes that the other four priorities for the “road map” until 2015 are: quality ministry, mission, self-sufficiency and social ministry.
Dwindling numbers are one reason for the new bishop’s interest in strong local leaders. Though the church spoke seven or eight years ago of up to 5.000 members in Russia, the Bishop now speaks of 2.400 members in 100 congregations. He attributes the drop to a “failure to adapt to a changing context. In 1991 we were poor and the church learned how to minister to the poor. But today we have people who are doing well economically, yet many churches have not learned how to minister to them. Such persons expect a high-quality worship service when they come. Not all of our congregations are able to supply them with a high-quality ministry.”
Methodists want to be a bridge between church traditions and nations. Though international churches – other than the Orthodox and Roman Catholics – are barely tolerated by the Russian state and all voting members of a church’s legislative body need to be Russian citizens, Bishop Khegay’s Episcopal Area remains responsible for Methodists in seven countries. These include four of the five Central Asian Muslim republics as well as Ukraine and Moldova. Though the Baltic states are as members of the European Union now on the other side of the political divide, the Bishop insists: “We are together in our fellowship and friendship and we desire to continue our witness of unity to the world.” The Methodist movement in Imperial Russia was born in Latvia and St. Petersburg. Its near-disappearance during the 70 years of Soviet rule spared it many of the tradition styles now burdening older Russian denominations.
In the ecumenical realm, hearty relations exist not only with the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. Methodists appear to be one of the few evangelical denominations in Russia striving for a good relationship with Pentecostal and Charismatic ones. Charismatics are often the Protestant group most active in the political arena and Khegay states: Together with them “we want to learn about contemporary trends in society and how we are called to be the church today”. From them we can “learn many bold ways of doing ministry”. He also admits: “I love the power of the Holy Spirit and seek to experience it wherever I go.” He desires to judge the Charismatic movement by its fruits: “It is important to check out its agreement with Scripture and the responses within our own fellowship. Time usually shows which movements are truly fruitful and which ones are just noise.”
The Bishop places his conference on the conservative, evangelical end of world Protestantism: “Our context is different from most other parts of the world, but we remain open to discuss all issues relevant to our people. As John Wesley stated: ‘We think and we let think.’”
Not all Russian congregations from the Wesleyan tradition belong to the UMC. A small number of congregations, the Nazarenes for ex., have achieved legal registration under inter-denominational umbrellas. Two Korean-speaking congregations in Moscow belong to the UMC; other Korean-speaking ones are gathered under various legal umbrellas.
The Bishop’s biography
As the German and Baltic peoples in the western Soviet Union were deported eastward after the German attack of June 1941, ethnic Koreans in the Soviet Far East were deported westward. These minorities then found each other deep in the interior in places such as Central Asia. Eduard Khegay, a non-Korean-speaking ethnic Korean, was born in Almaty/Kazakhstan in 1970. His parents were Communist party members and he recalls that “when I was growing up, we never spoke about anything associated with spirituality or religion”. He then moved to Moscow in 1987 to study hydraulic engineering and later graduated as an engineer. During his studies, he was invited to a Christian camp. This opened up a completely new world for him and he was converted to the Christian faith in 1992. A strong initial influence on him was the Methodist missionary Jonathan Park. Asked why he came to Russia, Park responded that he had come to share the love of Jesus Christ. Khegay was totally astonished and recalls: „I concluded this man was either working for the CIA or knew of things about which I had not the slightest clue!”
After theological studies and service as a youth worker in Moscow and as a pastor in St. Petersburg, the budding leader graduated with a Masters in theology from Atlanta’s “Emory University” in 2001. He later received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Washington D.C.’s “Wesley Theological Seminary” in 2010. After serving as Director of Church Development for two years, he was District Superintendent for the St. Petersburg region from 2003 - 2005. Besides being an assistant to the Bishop, he served as District Superintendent for the Central Asian region from 2009 - 2011.
Eduard Khegay can serve as Russian bishop for no more than 12 years; his present, initial term is scheduled to last eight years. He is married to Viktoria; the couple as an 11-year-old daughter, Liudmila.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 1 March 2013
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